Plymouth, MN- Some successful European engineering firms bring their most popular technology to the U.S., only to be mystified by a lukewarm response from the market. Well-established American companies often struggle with the same disappointment when attempting to transplant technology.
Not so with Turck Inc. Founded in Germany some thirty years ago, the sensor manufacturer opened shop in Minnesota in 1976 and has averaged 23% annual growth over the past five years-despite a lackluster economy. Today, some 200 of the firm's 1,000 employees work in the U.S.
Innovative products are only one element of success. What distinguishes Turck, says President and CEO Bill Schneider, is familiarity with customers' industries. "You can't just translate an overseas catalog into English," he says. Instead, Turck engineers focus on applying the company's core technologies to specific U.S. markets.
Many firms overlook the basic needs of an application when attempting to export, says Schneider. For example, "to suit American automotive production machinery, such as welding equipment, one very simple thing we did was change voltages," he explains. The Europeans use low-voltage dc. The U.S. auto industry wants ac. Likewise, where European customers like small connectors, the American auto industry prefers larger, more-rugged connectors. "It's a mentality difference," explains Director of Marketing Murray Death. "So we keep the base technology and change the packaging." Today, automotive markets account for some 25% of Turck's business.
Of course, meeting performance requirements is only part of customer satisfaction. To keep pace with constantly evolving automation processes, Turck application engineers maintain close customer contact. "We listen to the customer's changing needs-because they may not know what's possible with the latest technology," says Death.
A two-way exchange. Turck engineers regard each customer as both client and resource, says Death. "The customer thinks in terms of the product; we think in terms of function. Once we understand what they really need, we go a step further. We try to anticipate their needs."
Often, the result is a significantly more versatile product. Case in point: the Uprox(R) proximity sensor. Unlike previous designs, the Uprox detects all types of metal at the same sensing range. The switch's three-coil design uses a plastic core instead of a conventional ferrite core. Switch actuation depends on oscillator voltage, not the energy in the coil, when a target comes into range.
Because it has no ferrite core to become saturated by outside magnetism, most welding and electromagnetic fields won't affect it, says Chief Engineer Bill Eaton. The lack of an oscillating ferrite core, he claims, enables the device to switch as much as ten times faster than conventional sensors.
For automation processes that involve a variety of metals or must be flexible to new target materials, the Uprox can do the job of several sensors, say Turck engineers. "There's always been a demand for proximity sensors with longer sensing ranges-and that wasn't possible before. The combination of market need and the engineer's experience came together," says Death.
Turck introduced the Uprox at the end of 1993, and sales have steadily increased. As with any new technology, there is some hesitation on the part of the customer, says Death. "Because down-time is so expensive and industrial control engineers have seen so many products come and go, they're skeptical. But now we're starting to see customers change their design to Uprox. And next year will be even better."
Turck recently did a market survey that confirmed what engineers know: Customers want availability. Says Schneider: "To have a machine go down and not be able to get the part is just disastrous. That's why we have manufacturing in the U.S." Turck's newest facility is a cordset manufacturing plant in Golden Valley, MN.
"We have to satisfy the OEM with performance and technical information for the design of his machine, but we also have to satisfy his customer that it's available locally," says Death. "Our strategy is to make both the OEM and the end-user comfortable. They have different needs."
Design cues from industry. Most Turck products are general-purpose sensing packages, although many are tailored to a particular automated process. "Often we hear six or seven customers saying kind of the same thing, so we design a general-purpose product that's somewhat custom-designed," says Schneider.
Often, new product design cues come from leading companies in an industry, such as metal working or injection molding, says Schneider. "It works very well to have one or two leading companies sponsoring a product. We make it very clear up-front that we're making a general-purpose product. We tell them "we'll help you solve your problem, and you'll get it first.'"
Turck's Sensoplex(R) Bus remote I/O system is a good example. To simplify wiring, the system allows direct interconnection of field devices, such as sensors and actuators, to a controller via a single coaxial cable. With the help of customer feedback, Turck engineers designed the Sensoplex to directly interface with the programmable logic controllers many customers use, such as AEG Modicon PLCs. The system also works with Siemens S5 and other PLC brands via a master station hardware interface. Turck offers an iSBX interface for industrial computers.
For the same reasons, the Sensoplex system complements the DeviceNet open network communications standard introduced by Allen-Bradley last year. The results are encouraging: Ford recently chose the Sensoplex for its Mondeo plant in Genk, Belgium. "The customers drive us and we drive them," says Death. "It's a mutually beneficial balance, supported by R&D in Germany."
When a customer can't use a standard Turck product, or even a modified one, Turck engineers design something very specific. When a custom design can't be broadly applied to other markets, Turck will share R&D expenses, such as hard tooling, with the customer. "We put their name on it, then they're our partner in that market," explains Death.
As worldwide standardization gains momentum, the sensor business will change, predicts Schneider. "Now it's more subtle. Some products we sell in Europe are now being accepted by the U.S. auto industry. Leading companies like Ford are going through an evolution." What remains important is support of the product, availability, and contact with customers. "Lots of European companies come to the U.S. with their standard product," says Schneider. "The companies that listen to what the customer is saying will get the market share."